Making your First Days Count

Presented by Nathaniel Okenwa at You Got This Birmingham 2020

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

The name of my talk is Zero to 100 Real Quick inspired by the Drake lyric. The reason why I decided to come up with this talk is, about a year ago, I didn't work at Twilio. I've only been working here for seven months. I remember sitting down to next one of my now colleagues at Twilio and telling her there is this amazing job called a Developer Evangelist at Twilio, and I don't think I can make it. I don't know if I'm good enough. They said apply, because even though you apply, you may not have the skills, you have enough skills to get started and you can improve as you go.

My name is Nathaniel. You can refer to me as he/him, and find me online at Instagram, Twitter, and GitHub at chatterboxcoder if you've come to the Twilio table, you will know why I'm called chatterboxcoder! I finally got my dream job at my dream company, the job I didn't think I was good enough for. But I really wanted to be good. I wanted to become one of the best, and I wanted almost to prove to Twilio that they didn't make a mistake in hiring me, and it forced me, it made me do a lot of research for talks, for books, and all of these different resources to try and figure out how I can make a big impact when I started.

And this talk is just an amalgamation, me bringing in all of those different resources that I got together. One of the resources that I got, one of my favourite ones, was a book called The First 90 Days by Michael D Watkins. I love this quote. It says, "Every successful career is a career of successful assignments, and every successful assignment is launched with successful transition."

Now, some of you may not have your first job yet, or maybe you've just started, or maybe you've been working in tech for a couple of years now. This talk hopefully will still be useful to you because your career is made up of many transitions, and this talk will go through some of the things that can help you make an impact every time you step into a new role or position. I'm going to be using my timeline, the timeline I experienced during my first 100 days at Twilio.

This is very personal to me and my experience, and what you may notice is that, as I talk, you'll begin to this, "Well, I didn't experience this at that stage", or, "I experienced this much more early." That is fine. Every one of your journeys are totally different. There are some phrases that remain the same across our different timelines, and that is "observing" "understanding" and "creating". I'm going to talk about how these three phases helped me maximise my impact and get up to speed when I started working at Twilio.

I'm going to start from the beginning, day zero. You got the job. I finally got the letter, and I could tweet about it online, and you might feel something like this. [Laughter]. I was dancing, I was celebrating. More than those feelings, there are many other feelings that will be going through your head at this time.

The other obvious one is excitement. You feel good. This feels good. You've earned it. Make sure you be proud of yourself. You deserve it. You might also feel a bit nervous. But don't doubt yourself. You deserve to be there. Last year, actually, at You Got This, there was an amazing talk about imposter syndrome by Jo Franchetti, and one of my favourite things she said was it is counterintuitive, because do you really believe you're smart enough to trick all these smart people into thinking you're smarter than you actually are!

It gets a bit confusing! Don't doubt yourself. You deserve to be there. Also, support. Now, I remember when I got my job at Twilio, and I tweeted, and I tagged Twilio in it, and the CEO of Twilio actually I think owe liked, or commented, or retweeted, or something, and immediately, my follower count had a nice bump, my phone wouldn't stop beeping! It's more than just Twitter. All of the people who supported you on your journey, your colleagues in your bootcamp, or maybe the fellow students in your university, or maybe your friends at the meet-up, or the mentor that has been helping you learn to code, all of those people have been furthering you and want you to succeed. Make sure you share your success with them.

So we reach day one, the first day when you start, and I tell you, at my office, it is almost exactly loo like this. [Laughter]. So many new names to remember. We have cake, and cake every time new starters come, and I love it. It's amazing. But so many new names to remember, so many new people to meet, but sometimes being new can really suck, and I'm going to talk about this. I've listened to a talk, also called The First 90 Days, by a gentleman called Arnon Kraft.

He had an amazing opportunity. He lives in Tel Aviv, but he was going to move to the United States for a new job, he was going to live in a big house in a nice neighbourhood, and him and his wife were very excited. But his seven-year-old son wasn't so excited. His seven-year-old son was a bit annoyed that they had to move, and he sat down and tried to speak to his son to really get to the bottom of his son's motivations. His son kind of said a couple of different things, and I will boil this down into three points. His son was saying that everybody knows who I am here. I have friends. I know so many people.

I might lose those relationships when I move to the United States. And these were not his actual words, but he said, "I know how to be successful". That means he knows where to give in his homework. He knows which teachers are really strict, and also which teachers he can get away with talking a little bit at the back of the class in. Most importantly, to his seven-year-old son at the time, he knew what school. He knew that wearing his hair long is cool, he knows what trainers are in style at the minute, and he was really worried these things he wouldn't be able to take them with him when he went to the United States.

And it might feel like this is the typical thinking of a seven-year-old, but I think we even as adults feel the same things. We just come up with different words for them, and Arnon Kraft came up with different words. He spoke about reputation. You have built a reputation wherever you've come from. People at your university may know that you're a good coder, or people at your bootcamp, or the mentor who has been helping you knows about your skills and they know these are your strengths, and, when you go to this new place, they might people that you might not be able to carry that reputation over with you. It can sometimes feel intimidating. Also commitments and purpose. You knew what activities you needed to do and engage in to get you to this point.

Sometimes, you may be wondering to yourself, in this new position, what activities will I need to do to be successful, and will I be any good at those activities? Sometimes, most importantly to us, culture. Do I feel like I belong here? Do I feel included? Ly get on with the other people in my office? I'm going to talk about the other activities you can engage in to help you answer these intimidating questions that you might ask yourself, and some also bad practices that you should avoid to make sure you don't fall into certain traps.

So, day seven, the first week is down. And, for me, this was onboarding, so we got out my laptop, and I got set up. I understood all the office basics to get started. And I finally sat down to work. This is, for me, when I began the first of the three phases I mentioned earlier - observing.

Observation is one of the most crucial steps when you start at a new role, and there may be so many things that were not included in the onboarding training. What is the office culture like? What is the management style like? Who are the key partners, both internally and externally? And most important to me, what are the best office snacks? Making sure I find those early! You need to go and gather as much information, looking for all of those details in the new role. While you're doing this, you're also going to need to avoid some transition traps, and these are things that can be very easy to slip into when you get started, and they often get in the way from you being successful in your new role.

Number one is sticking exclusively to what you know. Now, you were hired because of what you know, but don't let that stop you from opening yourself to new opportunities. There is going to be so much that you can learn in your new role, and don't just rely on the things that got you there, but also look for opportunities to add new tours to that tool kit.

And another thing to avoid is falling prey to the action imperative. I struggle with this. This is when I started, I felt I needed to be working at 100 per cent on day one. It's really important to understand that you will need to have time to spin up to get there, and don't rush into it. And another one is only focussing on learning the technical part of the business.

Now, if any of you are active on Twitter, you may have heard of the TEDx engineer last year. Learning the overall business model of your company and understanding the business value of your role in that company can sometimes be as, or maybe even more, important than your tech skills. These adjacent skills let your tech skills fine. Make sure you don't just focus on the technical parts but make sure you understand how they fit with the company as a whole.

I will go back through these again. Sticking exclusively to what you know, falling prey to the action imperative, and only focusing on learning the technical side of the business.

But some good things that you should be practising is to negotiate success, and focus on building a productive working relationship with your new manager, it's great that we've followed a talk that sort of spoke about the manager's role in that, and make sure you are trying to communicate to build a solid relationship from the get-go.

So schedule meetings, maybe, with your manager, and other people in leadership, not just your direct manager, but maybe other people that you may be working with. And another thing to do is to keep your balance. Being committed to your job is great. However, don't overcommit to an unsustainable goal. It can be very easy, especially with the action imperative to try and focus only on work and not remember that you also have a life outside of work.

Day 30, the first month was down. For me, this is when I really gap to move on to the next phase, which is understanding, understanding the business that you're working. Remember, like I said before, your technical skills must be paired with an understanding of the business value that they bring.

You take all of those things that you've observed, not just about the I the way the business works, but about the office culture, the management style, internal and external key partners, and you do the mental maths in your head to come up with the answers, and then you really begin to understand.

There are more bad behaviours you should avoid. Overplaying the "I'm new card." You're now. You do not have to be perfect. You should still ask for help. The way you should be asking for help is to be leading into a constructive learning experience rather than asking people to do it for you, playing the "I'm still new" card. Rather, ask them questions and use it as an opportunity to learn.

Over nostalgia. A lot of times, not many of us have it early in our careers, but it can be this thing, "Back in my day, in my old company where I used to work, we used to do it this way." Like I said before, you were hired because of that knowledge and experience and skills that you bring to the table, but remember also to be open to the things that you can learn from where you are now, and maybe integrate them and come you mean with compromises.

And over promising and under-delivering. You can't please everyone. Keep track of the commitments you make. Someone told me off for this recently, because, last year, at our annual conference, they asked people, what would they like to volunteer for next year? Every time they said a topic, I said, "Me, me, me!" Now we are in the run-up, getting closer to our conference, and one of my team members messaged me and said, "Nathaniel, you should not be doing this many things. Drop some of them." It was really, really useful to me. I suffer from superhero syndrome. Don't over commit yourself to these different tasks that you may not be able to fulfil.

Hide-and-seek. This is another bad behaviour to avoid. Have you ever noticed that person that you met on day one,ing issue their hand, told them your name, and then you never see them again? Once a year at All Hands, they pop up and it's, "Wait, you work here!" It's important to understand that the social networking that you will gain at the different places that you work at it really, really useful to your career, and it's important not just to say hello on the first day and not make an effort to go and interact and engage with all of your colleagues and the people around you, because those people can often give you bits of advice, and bits of learning that can help you really grow in your roles.

So I will go back through them. Bad behaviours are hide-and-seek, overplaying the "I'm still new card", over nostalgia, superhero syndrome, and then hide-and-seek.

Good practices that you should do is ask questions. Never be afraid of asking why. Something funny at Twilio is we love - it's an American company - and Americans love acronyms. CIA, FBI - it's just crazy. Oftentimes, I'm in meetings, and acronyms will be used. I have no idea what they mean. Finally, I began to pluck up the courage to put my hand up and say, "Can you pause there? What does that acronym mean?" What is so funny is that, after a while, I noticed that so many other people in the company who have been working there longer than me would say, I didn't know that acronym meant that, either.

Make sure you ask questions. Never be afraid of asking why. You're not challenging authority by asking why but gaining an understanding so you can take that and have a better knowledge going forward. Also, make sure you use available resources. Now, one of the easiest resources that you can use is your manager's time and attention, but also your company will have education opportunities, maybe internally or externally. Make sure you use all of those resources to gain a great understanding of your company, the job, understanding your role and your technical skills, and all of that together.

Day 60, the third month. I began to feel confident. I was actually good at this. I had done a few five-minute demos which weren't a disaster. This is where you can move on to my favourite phase which is where you create. It's your time to shine. You're ready to take ownership. Feel free to revisit observing and understanding if you need to. It's an iterative process. You constantly need to go and observe and understand, and then create.

As you continue to create, you also will have a sense of independence. At Twilio, we represent this in our values. We have one of our values which is to draw the owl, which comes from this famous meme that you may recognise! And how to draw an owl. Draw some circles, and draw the rest of the owl. What it means is there is no instruction that details every single thing you're going to need to do to become successful at your role.

All of that understanding and observing that you're doing has given you the tools, and everything you need really just to go out and do it. I remember when I showed this to my friend, and he said to him, it means stop talking about it, and just do it.

There's an element of sometimes you might end up asking too many questions - I take that back, you can never ask too many questions - but you may expect someone to show you every single step. Feel free and confident in your skills and decision-making to be creative in your own way. As you draw the owl, you will begin to create value, and you will reach something which we call the break-even point.

Now, this is a very popular business model but I've changed this diagram a little bit. I've moved the timeline which is days after entry, because this is very different to very different people in different situations. If you're in a big company with lots of complex business processes, it may take you a lot longer, whereas if you're in a small company with maybe one really focused goal, you might get up to speed much more quickly.

And what happened is your company needed you at some point. And it took time and resources to value you. The amount of money that goes into HR and companies is much more surprising than I thought it was. And they invested in you, and, at some point, they brought you on, and they hired you. At first, they gave you so much value. They give you a salary, they give you training opportunities, and you're consuming all of this value, but as you create, you begin to offset this amount of value this they've invested in you, and, eventually, you reach a point where the amount of value that you have created actually offsets and completely pays off all the value that you have consumed.

Now, before I moving on, don't take this as a monetary goal and do maths and work out it took them this much money to hire me and pay me, therefore I need to make this much money for the company, the value that you bring may not come up in the shape that you think it will.

You might bring value by improving the office culture, or a new way of thinking, but see it as an opportunity for you to create value in your new role, for you to reach that break-even point. Take advantage of all of the value you're consuming, all of the learning opportunities that you have, and use them to create more value.

Then we reach day 100. You're in the groove. You want to keep it 100. You want to keep momentum going. This is where I say it's very important to recheck your work-life balance. I really like this gif! Make sure that you make time for personal reflection outside work. Your personal well denying is a key aspect to your life, and it enables you to succeed just as much as your technical skills. Understanding your circumstances and where you as an individual have come from is crucial to informing the right goals for yourself.

And you may find, like I did, that your personal life begins to change with your new job. I was listening to a talk last year, and by a colleague called Michelle, and she described the phenomenon known as a class straggler that I identify with. That is someone who grew up in a blue-collar situation and now has a white-collar life. I identify as a class straddler. I feel overly privileged that I have free lunch, and it wasn't what I wanted! [Laughter]. It's very stark contrast. And oftentimes, it can mean that I act really formally in very casual situations, or I forget to ask for help and feel really awkward requesting connections, and especially intimidated by people I perceive as in management or much more successful than me.

Now, you may or may not be a class straddler but what truly matters is understanding how your new job and experience that is come with it will affect your life. Recognising how your experiences will shape your understanding of working life will prepare you for some of the encounters that you may interact with along the way.

And the next thing is to infinity and beyond. Even I don't know president the. The first time I gave this talk, I was 100 days of working at Twilio. I had just gone past 200 days, but who is keeping count? Even I don't know what the next step is. But remember that your career is a marathon, not a sprint. But you can ensure a strong start.

You can keep going through the cycles of observing, gathering as much information about everything as you can, understanding. Never shy away from asking why. And then create. Go and draw the owl. Remember, every successful career is a series of successful assignments, and every successful assignment is launched with a successful transition.

This may be you going for your first job, or you've just started your first job, or maybe your new job in a new role at a different company, you can use some of the things I've spoken about in this talk to help you get started. Keep me updated. I would love to hear about your journeys, and feel free to reach out to me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and everything, and thank you so much for listening. [Applause].

About the talk

Hooray! You’ve landed your first full-time tech job, but what comes next? The first few months can be daunting and it is easy to feel like you don’t belong. In this talk, we look at some useful strategies to help you navigate your rookie year.

About Nathaniel Okenwa

Nathaniel is a Developer Evangelist at Twilio working to create magical moments for developers with their products. He is a die hard fan of JavaScript, sports, superheroes and mixed martial arts. His life goals are to have Batman's brains, Deadpool's humour, T'Challa's fashion sense, Killmonger's Wokeness, and Thanos' determination! He serves the Javascript community in the UK and the rest of Europe.

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Nathaniel Okenwa


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